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Dogs with fixations (part 2)

10 signs your dog has a fixation

Note: This is part two of a three-part series on my dog’s tennis ball obsession. Click these links to read part one, My mutt has a fixation, and part three, Breaking Ace’s fixation.

Dogs develop fixations for many reasons, often as a result of a lack of exercise, no leadership or boredom. A fixation is literally an addiction or obsession, and many dogs with one fixation have other fixations. Take my mutt for example. His first obsession is a ball. But if you take away the ball, he immediately moves all his energy to either a new toy, a stick, a piece of trash, or he begins an obsessive search to find that original ball.

Other fixations dogs might develop are squirrels, cats, bikes, strollers, gopher holes, lights, Frisbees, shadows, small dogs, roller blades, toys, food, water, chasing their tails or licking their bodies. Really, it could be anything. Just because a dog likes to play fetch (like the one in this photo), doesn’t mean she has a fixation. A fixation goes beyond normal dog behavior and becomes an obsession that is not only extremely annoying, but a problem for the dog.

Here are 10 signs your dog could have a fixation:

1. Your dog gets a glazed look in her eyes.

As soon as a Ace sees a ball, he becomes totally focused on it. His face actually changes, and he almost can’t break a stare from that ball no matter what. He even seems to hold his breath. Food, attention, his favorite people and other dogs do nothing to break his concentration from that ball. This can happen with dogs that are fixated on anything else, such as attacking or chasing a squirrel. All that matters to them is catching that squirrel and that’s where all their energy is focused. Trying to pull them away only intensifies their energy to go after the squirrel even more.

2. Your dog shows no response to commands.

Ace will respond to sit and down when there is a ball involved and that is about it. And both are done without breaking a stare from the ball. He simply can’t focus enough to respond to commands he has to put any thought into. And if I call him while he’s going after a ball, it is a lost cause until he first retrieves the ball. Again this could be the same way with a dog fixated on a small animal.

3. Your dog hurts herself.

Some dogs will throw themselves against a fence trying to catch a cat. Others will dig and dig until their paws bleed. Some might chew their bodies obsessively until their skin is raw. In Ace’s case, he will retrieve a ball continuously even if he injures himself in the process. He has cut his feet on ice and continued to run with bloody paws, not stopping until I noticed his injury. The same happened when he sprained his paw. He continued to run, oblivious to pain until the ball was put away. Then he limped.

4. Your dog puts herself in danger.

A fixated animal will chase the object into a busy street, into fire, over a ledge. She could hang herself by climbing a fence and getting her collar caught. She might chase another animal that then decides to fight rather than flee. My biggest concern with Ace is that he will some day chase a ball right into the road and get hit by a car.

5. Nothing else seems to matter to your dog.

Ace will not accept food if a ball is in sight. He will rarely stop to go to the bathroom, and he shows no response to verbal or physical praise. He will run himself to exhaustion where he is about to collapse, and he still will not take even a few seconds to pause for a drink.

6. Your dog lacks normal social skills.

The dog park is the best example of this. A normal, balanced dog will run and play with the other dogs. But a dog with a fixation will only care about what she is fixated on. Perhaps your husky is fixated on small dogs. Well, then all she will do at the dog park is pace along the fence trying to get at the smaller dogs on the other side. When Ace is at the dog park, all he does is run around and find a ball, and then bring it to me. No other dogs matter to him. He doesn’t know how to play with them. The other dogs actually ignore him because they can tell he is not normal. If another dog picks up on Ace’s lack of social skills and tries to dominate him by mounting him, Ace just stands there, continuing to stare at the ball. How’s that for embarrassing?

7. Your dog has pent-up energy.

Usually a fixation begins when a dog doesn’t get enough exercise. The fixation becomes the one way the dog knows how to use all her excess energy. A dog left home indoors all day might become obsessed with chasing birds and rabbits once she gets outside. Or maybe she becomes obsessed with chasing a ball because she never gets a walk. One of the beginning steps to helping a dog overcome an obsession is to increase her exercise to an hour of running a day while wearing a dog backpack.

8. Your dog’ body posture/energy shifts when she sees that object.

Just like Ace’s facial expression changes when he sees a ball, his whole body changes. He freezes, stiffens and remains tense, even holding his breath. He stops panting. Only his eyes move, following wherever that ball goes.

9. Your dog doesn’t get leadership or discipline from her owner.

One of the biggest mistakes I made with my dog was not setting rules for when to quit playing ball. I never allowed the game of fetch indoors, but outside, I encouraged Ace’s retrieving. It was cute and he always stayed by me if he had a ball. His obsession might’ve been kept under control had I set some limitations earlier on and kept the ball playing to five minutes at a time. Instead, we played fetch for a half-hour or more at times. Now he will not quit unless I put the ball in a closet. Even if I throw the ball over a fence or put it in my backpack or the trunk of my car, he will obsessively search for that ball.

10. Your dog loses common sense.

A fixated dog does not notice when she is too hot or cold. During the winter, I know Ace would chase a ball even if he got frostbitten feet or started to become hypothermic. The same is true in the summer. I have to stop Ace or he will overheat. I know he won’t stop chasing a ball before developing hyperthermia because he has come close. Like I said above, fixated dogs put themselves in danger and do not notice pain or discomfort. They will also do things they won’t normally do, such as act aggressive or bark obsessively. For example, a dog fixated on food might bite her owner if he tries to take her bowl away.

Does your dog have a fixation?

Click these links to read part one, My mutt has a fixation, and part three, Breaking Ace’s fixation.

30-day challenge: Teach your dog five new commands (day 30)
Breed profile: Cairn terrier